The TPC at Deere Run facing golfers this week during the PGA Tour's John Deere Classic is a much different course than it was when Michael Clark outlasted Kirk Triplett in the first event held at the course in 2000.
Superintendent Alex Stuedemann was not at Deere Run for that first event in 2000, but he was an assistant there from 2002-2007 before moving on to help grow-in the TPC of San Antonio. Stuedemann, who has been head superintendent at Deere Run since 2014, admits the course has changed a lot since those early days.
"When I was here as an assistant, I don't think we understood the agronomics of the property," Stuedemann said. "We had a reverence for the land, and we still do, but simple things like light, air, water, nutrition, we were ignoring them to a degree. We saw this beautiful piece of land, and we thought any change to the golf course would change the beauty and history of this property."
The Deere started in 1971 as the Quad Cities Open at Crow Valley Country Club and was first played across the Mississippi River at Crow Valley Country Club in Davenport, Iowa. In almost a half-century, it has undergone several name changes. It has operated as the John Deere Classic since 1999 and moved to its current home in Silvis the following year.
TPC at Deere Run is built on the site of a horse farm donated by the Hewitt family, who are descended from John Deere, the company's founder and namesake.
"We still have a reverence for this property and what it means to John Deere and the Hewitt family," Stuedemann said.
We were a little surprised by the soils here. It's challenging growing grass into it. You have to be very responsive when it gets hot and humid.
A perpetual tree-management program started by former superintendent Paul Grogan, who was Stuedemann's mentor at TPC Twin Cities in Minnesota, has been ongoing since 2013.
"It started with Paul opening up air movement, pruning and removing trees," Stuedemann said. "That gave us a good foundation and we've gotten more aggressive with it since then. Definitely if you go down the corridor of the golf course, conditions have improved since those early days. But we realized that if you took a step 30 feet off that corridor in either direction, the golf course could be improved even more."
That tree-management plan also includes removing invasive species and promoting the native plants to so the property remains consistent with that which the Hewitt family donated to the PGA Tour two decades ago, Stuedemann said.
"We have a lot of good hardwood trees here - basswood, elm, ash, Linden, oak - and they're all being swallowed by sumac and locust saplings and all of these other invasive species that have been destroying this geography," he said. "We've gone through and taken all these species out to highlight the native trees while also making the golf course more playable. That has benefited our guests and their golf experience, and the added benefit is better turf conditions."
The Quad Cities area of western Illinois and eastern Iowa is surrounded by some of the world's most fertile farmland. The golf course, however, is built atop an old coal mine and the native soils are dominated by thick, silty clay that Stuedemann compared to Play-Doh.
"We were a little surprised by the soils here," Stuedemann said. "It's challenging growing grass into it. You have to be very responsive when it gets hot and humid.
"It's almost like playing with artists clay. It's moldable, but it doesn't percolate anything. When I came back, we had an old Verti-Drain in the barn that hadn't moved since I was an assistant. We fired that up, and pounded with it and almost drove it to its grave. We've since bought a new one and it has become part of our annual practices."
We were very aggressive and we still are, but we were backing it up with results.
TPC at Deere Run was built at a time when several new turf varieties were coming onto the market, and the aggressive growth properties of some of them - and how to manage them - were not fully understood, Stuedemann said.
"We were pulling quarter-inch to three-eighths-inch cores. It was a new course. We were trying to build organic matter, and that was when a lot of new bentgrasses were coming out and nobody quite understood their aggressive nature," Stuedemann said. "It was 'three-eighths, drag it in, blow off the fluff and here we go,' and it was the same every year. Looking back, we were just creating a layer beneath the surface that wasn't allowing us to grow very deep roots. The organic matter was building up with those new, aggressive bents that didn't require a lot of nutrative inputs. Recognizing that, we got aggressive and are getting some of that organic matter out. We went in that first fall with some five-eighths-inch hollow tines and pulled it all out and shovelled it all out."
The next year, he added deep tine aerification to the program. As aggressive as the management program was, the process of feeding the turf became equally conservative.
"We went down 7 inches to give the roots a path. We've had to get more aggressive with our cultural practices because the accumulation of organic matter was impacting the health of the turf," he said. "We're pulling larger cores and using lots and lots of sand. My nickname is "The Sandman.
"We started weekly topdressing to keep up with the growth, and we started giving the turf what it needs when it needs it so as not to repeat the problems we had. We were very aggressive and we still are, but we were backing it up with results. We had a firmer surface, we had better performance after storms. Yes, there was a cost to it in the way of some impediment to golf, but we were giving golfers better season-long performance out of the golf course."